Monday 29 June 2009
by: Brian Roa
For the past four years, I have observed the military occupation
of the high school where I teach science. Currently, Chicago's Senn
High School houses Rickover Naval Academy (RNA). I use the term
"occupation" because part of our building was taken away despite
student, parent, teacher and community opposition to RNA's opening.
Senn students are made to feel like second-class citizens inside
their own school, due to inequalities. The facilities and resources
are better on the RNA side. RNA students are allowed to walk on the
Senn side, while Senn students cannot walk on the RNA side. RNA
"disenrolls" students and we accept those students who get kicked out
if they live within our attendance boundaries. This practice is
against Chicago policy, but goes unchecked. All of these things
maintain a two-tiered system within the same school building.
This phenomenon is not restricted to Senn. Chicago has more
military academies and more students in JROTC than any other city in
the US. As the tentacles of school militarization reach beyond
Chicago, the process used in this city seems to serve as a model of
expansion. There was a Marine Academy planned for Georgia's Dekalb
County, which includes 10 percent of Atlanta. Fortunately, due to
protest, the school has been postponed until 2010. Despite it being
postponed, it is still useful to analyze the rhetoric used to
rationalize the Marine Academy. Many of the lies and excuses used to
justify school militarization in Chicago and Georgia may well be used
in other cities as militarism grows.
Not for Recruiting?
A favorite lie used to defend the expansion of military
academies is that they are not used to recruit for the military.
"This is not a training ground to send kids into the military,"
Dekalb Schools' Superintendent Crawford Lewis told the Atlanta
Journal-Constitution in March. Those same words could have come
straight from Col. Rick Mills, director of military academies and
JROTC in Chicago, who explained away recruitment in a similar fashion.
"This is not a recruiting tool, but a way to help students
succeed at whatever career they might choose," Mills told the Chicago Tribune.
Yet military academies receive money from the Department of
Defense (DoD). The DoD would be derelict in its responsibilities were
that money not spent as an investment in future soldiers. Accepting
the claim that there is no recruiting in military academies makes
about as much sense as allowing gangs to fund and operate within
schools, on the assumption that they won't recruit on school grounds.
Moreover, since military academies are staffed with ex-service
members (many don't even require valid teaching certificates),
students are likely to receive career advice that favors a military path.
There are more blatant examples of recruiting at RNA. The cadets
- the label applied to students at military academies - have taken a
school-sponsored field trip to the Naval Academy in Annapolis,
Maryland. Furthermore, last year the school hosted Adm. Michael
Mullen, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mullen
told the cadets that the Navy was a "great career choice." RNA has
hosted ten admirals in their short four-year history.
In addition to these direct tactics, the academies use more
insidious approaches. A military culture permeates these schools.
Students dress in uniform, receive demerits, and are introduced to
the military hierarchy and way of life. For example, I have witnessed
students marching with fake rifles. This cultivation of a militarized
mind is the best explanation for why 40 percent of all Naval Junior
Reserve Officer Training Corps program graduates wind up entering
military service. This statistic is especially telling, considering
that less than one percent of the population has served in the
military at any given moment since 1975.
The Choice Argument
Military academies are promoted as an option within the public
school system for parents. We heard it from Arne Duncan (ex-CEO of
CPS and current secretary of education) and we hear it from Dale
Davis, public information officer for the Dekalb County School
System, who calls the military school "an addition" for parents to
consider. Compare that with what Colonel Mills said in December 2007
in the Online News Hour: "The purpose of the military academy
programs is to offer our cadets and parents an educational choice
among many choices in Chicago Public Schools and to provide an
educational experience that has a college prep curriculum, combined
with a military curriculum."
We must dissect what kind of "choice" parents are given. If
one's only choices are a school in desperate need of repair or a
shiny new military academy, parents will often "choose" the "better" school.
The unbalanced funding presents an incredibly difficult decision
for many parents, as Marivel Igartua, mother of a cadet inside the
Naval Academy, told me. She didn't want to have to send her daughter
to RNA, but she felt squeezed into the choice because her area school
was in such bad shape. The unequal allocation of resources, which
favors military academies, can serve as a form of economic coercion
If public schools were given the resources they need to improve,
then we could offer parents a more real choice.
Military pushers also argue that the academies are a popular
option among parents. According to Mills, quoted in In These Times in
2005, "These kinds of programs would not be in schools if there
weren't kids who wanted it, parents who supported it and
administrators who facilitated it."
Arne Duncan claimed there were waiting lists filled with
children hoping to attend a military academy. However, CPS has never
released the so-called waiting lists, and concrete numbers tell a
different story. RNA's goal for student enrollment for this year was
500-600 students. RNA finished the year with 376 students. Where's the demand?
Military Academies in the Context of Dismantling Public Education
Viewing militarization in the broader scope of "school
improvement" can provide a helpful lens. In Chicago, military
academies often represented one offshoot of a general plan to break
down public education and replace it with charter schools and
contract schools, siphoning public money to business people and
"nonprofits." However, these "chosen" schools don't perform any
better than public schools. A recent Chicago study compared ACT
scores between charter schools and neighborhood schools, and no
statistically significant difference was found. There was a
difference in the number of English language learners and
special-needs students accepted. Charters received fewer of both
students. We see the same dichotomy with Senn and RNA.
What may be more problematic is that sometimes the
charterization movement masks hidden agendas Sometimes the hidden
agenda is union busting. Sometimes it's gentrification. Sometimes it
is militarization. We have seen all of these hidden agendas in
Chicago. We all agree that public schools are in desperate need of
renovation and repair. But simply demonizing public schools as
failing without giving them the resources to succeed - and replacing
them with experimental schools - is unjust.
The push to destroy public schools and replace them with
military academies and charter schools was further facilitated under
the mayoral control of schools in Chicago. Mayoral control means that
a city's once publicly elected school board is replaced by mayoral
appointees partial to the agenda set forth by the mayor. In Chicago,
it also meant replacing the school superintendent, who was legally
mandated to have public education experience, with a CEO, who is only
mandated by his scruples. Duncan served as the CEO for several years.
He helped administer and finish off the largest militarization of a
school system in the US, under the banner of "school improvement."
If we look at the history of Chicago's "school improvement"
plan, we can see the hidden agenda pushed by the charter movement.
According to Pauline Lipman, writing in Substance News in 2005, it is
a plan whose blueprint was ripped from the Commercial Club of
Chicago, a conglomerate of Fortune 500 companies in Chicago. Schools
are closed and reopened while students are shuffled around to other
schools, which are often performing worse than their original school.
Little regard is paid to the education of the majority of students,
almost all of them poor, black and Latino/a. Simply put, Chicago's
plan is not a school improvement plan. It is the dismantling of a
public good for the benefit of a chosen few. School militarization
was accelerated as this plan was being implemented in Chicago.
The pushing of similar plans can be expected throughout the US
now that Duncan is secretary of education. With the stimulus bill's
$100 billion in emergency aid for public schools and colleges, Duncan
is in an incredible position of power. He could use it to promote
renovation and increase resources to existing public schools. Or he
could spend it on costly privatization and militarization,
squandering our tax money and endangering our children's futures.
Brian Roa is a science teacher at Chicago's Senn High School and
a member of CORE (Caucus of Rank and File Educators), a caucus in the
CTU which works for equitable education for all students and against
the charterization schemes in Chicago.